25. Students’ Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (cont.)

Professor Amy
Hungerford: The exercise of inviting you to choose our last
novel, as I think I explained in the
very first class of this term, is an exercise in thinking
together about what defines a period of literature.
So, for all the other books in the syllabus,
I came with my rationale for why I included them,
and for this book, I’m invited again to think
about whether I would, if I were teaching this again,
and you had not chosen it. So, today I want to reflect on
that, and it will lead directly into my analysis of what the
Holocaust is doing in this novel,
and then I will have some parting words for you to
conclude the course. When I think about books to
include, I have four categories that I think about.
One is books that are somehow representative.
So, the books in this course that fit that bill,
you might think of the ones that feature the Identity Plot.
As I argued in that lecture at mid semester,
the Identity Plot is a reigning narrative structure in this
period, and some of the books in our
syllabus culminating in The Human Stain– and I think
this book, too, could be included in that
group–all are representative of different versions of that
narrative structure. So: representative.
Innovative: I include works on the syllabus
that I consider innovative in the form of the novel,
in the genre of the novel, or for their subject matter.
Somehow they think about something in a way that I
haven’t known anything else to think about before.
I think Lolita fits this model very well,
and in its own way The Bluest Eye,
at that time in the 1970s, took up a subject that
had also been neglected and was innovative in its subject
matter. Is a book widely read?
Well, this book certainly meets that criterion,
and some of our other books do, as well.
Lolita is one; The Human Stain is
another, The Woman Warrior, pretty much any Morrison
novel you can choose: there are lots of books that
fit this criteria. And usually what I’m aiming for
is a book that will be both widely read and something else
on my list, so that it covers more than one base.
And finally, and this is the most evanescent
category, is it somehow excellent or important in some
other way? Generally, for me this is an
aesthetic category. So, is it an excellent example
of writing? is it an excellent example of
narrative art? is it important in what it
thinks about somehow philosophically,
topically, in a way that nothing else quite can match?
I talked to you on Monday a little bit about Jonathan Safran
Foer’s ambitions for this novel and his ambitions,
in general, as he expresses them in interviews.
I think, when I consider this novel, I know that this is where
Foer’s interest truly lies. I’m sure he wants to be widely
read. I’m sure he wants to be
innovative, and that’s probably connected with the excellence or
importance that he’s aiming at. He probably doesn’t want to be
representative. Most writers want to be
singular rather than representative.
But this is where the investment really is,
and it’s in that category that, I think, we find his use of the
Holocaust. It’s in the effort to be
important, to be writing about something important in this
novel, that the Holocaust comes to
have such a place in it, or that he chooses a story that
has the Holocaust at its center. Now, I myself am reserving
judgment on the excellence or importance of this novel,
but I will say that it is certainly representative of two
things. One is a version of the
Identity Plot. It is a novel of a young
person, two young people, coming to seek out their past
and somehow gain from that search some sense of themselves;
so, it is a version of the Identity Plot.
It is also representative of late modernist formal
characteristics; so, this is clever in the way
that John Barth is clever with language.
It is funny in the way that Pynchon and Barth are,
just drawing from our syllabus. It makes some of the kinds of
moves that The Woman Warrior makes.
So, it is representative in that way.
I do not think it innovates formally.
There’s nothing I see here, formally, that I have not seen
elsewhere and before. So, for me, it doesn’t quite
meet that criteria, but “representative” and
“widely read,” certainly. Now, there is a way in
which I think it could be understood as innovative,
and my sort of kernel for thinking about this is on 185. This is in that harrowing scene
where the woman they think of as Augustine has told them the
story of the murder of the Jews of Trachimbrod,
and then afterwards the grandfather confesses to his
complicit conduct with that murder. And Alex, as he’s translating
for Jonathan his grandfather’s words, he says in the middle of
185: You cannot know how it
felt to have to hear these things and then repeat them,
because when I repeated them I felt like I was making them new
again. That phrase,
“making them new again,” is loaded for any ambitious writer
coming after modernism. “Make it new” was the dictum
that Ezra Pound held out as defining literature that could
matter formally, aesthetically,
innovatively; so, to make it new in writing
is very closely allied with the project of modernism,
a formal project. To use that phrase in this
emotionally loaded moment suggests two things.
One is, it draws on a whole history of discourse about
genocide, and particularly about the Holocaust,
that could be encompassed under the banner of trauma theory.
Now, some of you may have encountered trauma theory.
It’s a sort of mix of psychoanalysis and literary
criticism that has been powerful in the past couple of decades.
Its power is waning, I think, although there is a
new interest in Sociology in trauma, now.
In the former literary critical version of it,
trauma theorists argued that to tell the story again,
to tell the story of a trauma again, was to re-experience it.
This was a way of understanding representation as human
experience, as actual experience unmediated,
and the special thing about trauma was that it was the only
kind of experience–this is what most trauma theorists
argued–that it was really the only kind of experience that had
this quality to it, this peculiar quality to it,
that it remained real in the sense of remaining experience
and not becoming language, somehow.
This was a way of imagining language, also,
conversely, as being experience.
And, for some trauma theorists, this analysis of language
spread out to other kinds of language,
so that any language could be understood as in some sense
traumatic, and this is a far reach of it.
Much of this work, I have to say,
was done at Yale by two scholars, Cathy Carruth and
Shoshana Feldman. Both have now left the
institution, but Yale was very well known for trauma theory.
It had its applications in Holocaust Studies,
in particular in the building of the Fortunoff Archive of
testimony which is housed here, I think in Sterling. The effort to make videotapes
of survivors’ testimonies was, in part, of course,
a historical effort to get that knowledge secure before that
generation passed away, to gather as much as could be
known of the human experience of the Holocaust.
But there was a reason, I think, that it was video. There was a great desire among
people who wrote and thought about and studied the Holocaust
to have that immediacy that video was thought to give;
so, rather than have transcribed testimonies,
or written testimonies, you get to see the actual face
and expression of the person telling that story.
This is something that scholars have–since the
founding of the archive–have spent a lot of time thinking
about and theorizing. In the course of that
theorizing, the word “witness” has come to have a very specific
and powerful meaning. The interviewer was to think of
herself or himself as–not a questioner or as an interviewer
in the way that we would usually understand that role–but rather
as a witness to that person’s story,
a witness in the sense of a judicial witness,
someone who would be in a court to affirm that something had,
indeed, happened. There was a sense that
validation was needed, in the context of gathering
this evidence. Witnessing was theorized in a
much more complex way by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub,
a psychiatrist who is–I think Dori Laub is still in New Haven.
I think he’s still at Yale. But, together they wrote a book
called Testimony that had a lot to say about exactly
how the witness functions in relation to the person who is
testifying. And I think you can see the
mark of all of this thought about how the Holocaust is
received in the present, stamping Foer’s work.
So, you see it, in part, in that little
sentence that I just read to you, and saying it again it was
“making it new.” It’s as if it’s a moment in
which trauma is transmitted through language,
and is imagined to be transmitted in an unmediated
way; so, the repetition that we
experience as readers, all of these horrible things
are said twice, because we see Alex translating
them, and that’s dramatized for us by the device of Alex as
translator. So, its debt to modernism,
or the way it has its eye on modernism behind it,
is closely allied to this understanding of language and
its relationship to trauma. Now, by the time Jonathan
Safran Foer is writing this book, not only has Holocaust
Studies established this whole body of thought about language,
but there are also many examples of what you might call
the American Holocaust Novel, and the one I’m going to use in
my lecture today, to think about in relation to
this, is Art Spiegelman’s graphic
novel Maus. How many of you have read
it? Okay. Good, a bunch of you.
For those of you who haven’t, it’s the story of a character
named Art Spiegleman, and you’ll recognize that
device of course from Foer. Art Spiegleman is a cartoonist
writing a book about his father’s experiences in the
Holocaust and in concentration camps.
He goes through the novel alternating between scenes of
Art interviewing his father, Vladek, and then it sinks in to
Vladek’s story, and there are lots of extended
scenes where we just see Vladek escaping from camps and making
his way through them and so on, doing all the things that he
did to finally escape with his wife, Anja.
We find out fairly early in the first volume of
Maus–it’s a two-volume graphic novel–that Art’s mother
killed herself well after she arrived in America as an
immigrant, having escaped,
and we see her in an inserted cartoon in a different style in
the bathtub. She slit her wrists in the
bathtub. What’s striking about that
graphic novel–It’s extremely smart in its meditation on the
relationship between a son and his father and the relationship
between growing up in America and surviving the Holocaust–but
what’s really striking is its meditation on the problem of
Art’s insignificance. How can his childhood and his
child’s problems–being bullied at school or whatever it is–how
can those compete with his father’s experience of having
survived the Holocaust by his own wits and by luck?
That dramatic story is impossible for the son to match,
and so there are certain ways–I have argued in
print–certain ways that Art appropriates his father’s story
and imagines himself as a survivor. So, it’s a way of transmitting
the trauma of the Holocaust from one generation to another.
And there are lots of graphic devices and linguistic tricks
that Spiegelman uses to effect this,
and I won’t go into that detail, now, but it’s something
that I’ve argued at length. What makes Everything is
Illuminated different and, I would argue,
innovative is that it, for me, represents the
third-generation effort to recover the Holocaust. So, by the time Foer is
writing, these stories have been told, not only by Spiegelman
(His books came out in 1987 and 1991,
or ’86 and ’91, the two volumes of Maus,
so, well before Foer wrote this,
when Foer is just a child). That was not the only book on
the experience of the Holocaust. Those would include Cynthia
Ozick’s The Shawl, a very famous example,
a little later a European writer, a German writer living
in England, W. G.
Sebald wrote Austerlitz, had a very similar
structure of a child of the Kindertransport,
someone who had been taken from Prague to England along with all
of the other children, Jewish children of his
neighborhood, to save them.
He discovers this as his own past, and he tries to go back
and find the traces of his parents in the concentration
camps. And finally he finds a snippet
of film from one of the concentration camps where his
mother was–his mother was a singer–and he slows it down
further and further and further just to try to glimpse her face.
This is a story of the hunt for the beloved parent and for the
ground of a child’s identity. This story has been told many
times by the time Foer is writing this novel.
In addition, most of these prior versions in
fiction, and some in memoir, have to do with the
first-generation American experience.
So, Foer finds himself belated in two ways:
one, because the story of the Holocaust and of finding out
that secret has already been told;
and two, because he’s not second generation.
He’s not the child of a survivor but the grandchild of a
survivor. So, what do you do to make that
story your own? If you are committed to its
centrality to who you are, how do you make that into an
unmediated kind of experience? One way that that’s done,
both in second-generation stories and I think in this
third-generation story, is by playing off of and
excavating the Jewish cultural veneration for memory.
So in Jewish tradition memory of parents, of the dead,
of past events, is at the heart of religious
practice, but also of secular versions of
religious practice. This novel is full of those
secular versions of religious practice, and it explicitly
talks about children’s relation to the memory of their parents.
This is on 268. Oops.
I got my page wrong there. Sorry, 260. He’s describing here the itch
to remember that the novel imagines as particularly Jewish:
But children had it worst of all.
For although it would seem that they had fewer memories to haunt
them, they still had the itch of memory as strong as the elders
of the shtetl. Their strings were not even
their own, but tied around them by parents and grandparents,
strings not fastened to anything, but hanging loosely
from the darkness. So, you can imagine this story
of Jonathan going back to find the woman who helped his
grandfather escape as an effort to tie that string to something
concrete. The fact that he never can
really find that woman suggests that, already internalized here,
is something that Holocaust literature coming before this
has been intent on examining and questioning,
which is: can you ever have that unmediated relation to the
past; can you ever tie memory back to
the event in a way that feels like it’s a real connection?
So, here there is a fairly easy, if also wistful or
elegiac, admission that you can’t ever really tie that
string up. This is why the hunt is never
going to be successful in the novel;
we will never tie up all those little details.
It’s meant to be that way, because at this late date it’s
clear that’s the only way it could be, and that’s not
innovative. It’s simply where the genre is
right now. However, this novel is loath to
part with the drama that earlier stories made from the recovery
narrative. So, for Jonathan,
the mystery is not what happened to his grandparents
during the Holocaust. That’s the classic question.
The parents won’t talk about what happened.
The child wants to know. The child knows there’s
something back there, and the hunt is to find out
exactly what happened, and usually it’s hidden either
because the parent left a prior child, lost a prior child,
or somehow felt guilty about surviving, either because of
explicit acts where they were forced to sacrifice someone in
their family in order to escape or in order to help someone else
in their family escape; they were forced to choose.
And we see that choice thematized in the Holocaust
sections of this novel. So, there is that hiddenness of
the Holocaust experience. That’s not what’s hidden in
this novel. That history is not what
Jonathan doesn’t know. He knows his grandmother
survived the Holocaust. That’s not a mystery.
The mystery is: who helped her? Who helped his grandfather?
Sorry. It’s the grandfather. Who helped his grandfather to
escape? That’s the mystery.
Augustine is the mystery woman. The photograph represents that
missing or hidden knowledge. That this drops out of the
picture of the novel relatively painlessly–he’ll never find
her–is, I think, the mark of how the
story of hiding something that’s hidden gets displaced onto Alex.
So, what I see here is the transfer of the story of the
hidden past from the hidden past of the victim’s side of the
Holocaust to the hidden past of the perpetrator’s side.
This is a displacement of that narrative onto the perpetrators; so, now it’s Alex who is
looking to find the secret buried in the dysfunctionality
of his family. Now it’s Alex who finds,
in speaking to his grandfather, some explanation for why his
father is such a tyrant. And the same logic of memory
and genealogy that you see in the way Jewish families are
talked about in their relation to memory and history between
generations, that is reproduced as the
father says, “You are responsible for your son,” the
father is responsible for the son,
somehow the father is reflected in the son.
So, the choice that Alex’s grandfather made–to point out
his friend, Herschel, as a Jew and to thus give him
up to the murderous Nazis–this is somehow played out in the
dysfunctionality of the family in the present,
in the terrible rages and drunkenness of the father. It’s interesting to me that
this novel is about making the relationship between
grandchildren and grandparents as immediate as possible,
and so I think it’s really interesting that we have Alex
disowning his father. “You are not my father,” he
says at the end of the novel as he throws his father out of the
house, essentially. It’s a way of getting the
second generation out of the way and hopping into that space,
so you can see it in the second- and third-generation
structure. You swipe the parents out of
the way, and you hop into their place, as immediately descended
from the people who experienced these events.
A problem for Americans writing about the Holocaust is
that, even if you immigrated here as a survivor,
this is not the land of those events, and so I think this
gives us some insight into the use of the European setting.
Europe is where the important history happened.
That’s why a novel trying to be important in these terms has to
be set there. So, if you set out looking for
an important subject matter, you need that historical
grounding, and it’s not in America;
it’s in Europe. On 117, you can see very
clearly how the story of Augustine and Alex picks up the
trope of witnessing, and it’s of course accomplished
through Alex’s butchered English.
This is on 117, where he holds the photograph
out to Augustine and he says: “Have you ever witnessed
anyone in this photograph?” She examined it for several
moments. “No.”
I do not know why but I inquired again.
“Have you ever witnessed anyone in this photograph?”
“No,” she said again, though the second no did not
seem like a parrot but a different variety of no.
“Have you ever witnessed anyone in this photograph?”
I inquired, and this time I held it very proximal to her
face like Grandfather held it to his face.
“No,” she said again, and this seemed like a third
variety of no. I put the photograph in her
hands. “Have you ever witnessed anyone
in the photograph?” “No,” she said,
but in her no I was certain that I could hear “Please
persevere; inquire me again.”
So I did. “Have you ever witnessed anyone
in the photograph?” She moved her thumbs over the
faces as if she were attempting to erase them.
“No.” “Have you ever witnessed anyone
in the photograph?” “No,” she said,
and she put the photograph on her lap.
“Have you ever witnessed anyone in the photograph?”
I inquired. “No,” she said,
still examining it but only from the angles of her eyes.
“Have you ever witnessed anyone in the photograph?”
“No.” She was humming again with more
volume. “Have you ever witnessed anyone
in the photograph?” “No,” she said, “no.”
I saw a tear descend to her white dress.
It too would dry and leave a mark.
“Have you ever witnessed anyone in the photograph?”
I inquired, and I felt cruel, I felt like an awful person,
but I was certain that I was performing the right thing.
“No,” she said, “I have not. They all look like strangers.”
I periled everything. “Has anyone in this photograph
ever witnessed you?” Another tear descended.
“I have been waiting for you for so long.”
Here that effort, through witness,
to come to an unmediated connection with the past and
with the violence of the Holocaust, it’s acted out.
It is, as Alex said, performed by that almost
liturgical repetition of the question and the answer,
and the way that Augustine’s body gets closer and closer to
the photograph; she touches the faces;
she finally merges herself and the photograph by letting her
tears fall on it. So, the question is:
have you ever witnessed for these people?
She has not, yet, because no one has come to
hear her witness, and I’m reminded,
then, of the structure of those survivor testimonies on video,
where a witness is required in order for the story to be told.
And so, Augustine, now, she has not witnessed,
because she did not have a witness.
Now she has her witnesses, and she will witness to them.
And so Alex comes to be undone by what he finds about
himself, what he finds out about his grandfather and his family.
In the second-generation story, often it is the family of the
second generation, the child of the survivor,
who is undone by what they find out about their parent.
So here, again, the structure of the narrative
is transferred to the perpetrator’s side.
And who is lying in the bath with their wrists cut?
Not the survivor but the perpetrator.
So, you get that image from Maus transferred into the
perpetrator’s family. What I find quite remarkable
about the formal techniques of this novel is how they finally
reflect on that transfer of the narrative from the Holocaust
literature to the perpetrator’s story,
and if you look on 160 we can begin to see how this works. If you’ll recall,
they are sitting in the silence and darkness together peeling
corn for Augustine, and Alex takes Jonathan’s diary
and opens it and he says on 159: This is what I read.
He told his father that he could care for Mother and little
Igor. It took his saying it to make
it true. Finally he was ready.
His father could not believe this thing.
“What?” he asked. “What?”
And Sasha told him again that he would take care of the
family, that he would understand if his father had to leave and
never return, and that it would not even make
him less of a father. He told his father that he
would forgive. Oh, his father became so angry,
so full of wrath, and he told Sasha that he would
kill him, and Sasha told his father that
he would kill him, and they moved at each other
with violence and his father said,
“Say it to my face, not to the floor,” and Sasha
said, “You are not my father.”
So, in this scene Alex begins to understand that Jonathan is
using him as a character, and moreover that Jonathan has
penetrated right into the most intimate and painful part of his
family life, his relationship with his
father, and is fictionalizing that.
And of course if you turn to the end, I hope you recognize
this, on 274. This is, in fact,
this passage from his diary, what we are given as the letter
from the grandfather to Jonathan, and there it is.
This is what happened. He told his father that
he could care for Mother and little Igor.
It took his saying it to make it true.
Finally he was ready. His father could not believe
this thing. “What?”
And so it goes, on to the end of that
paragraph, and you can see culminating,
as in the diary, with “Say it to my face,
not to the floor,” and Sasha said,
“You are not my father.” What are we to make of this?
So, this is a bit of postmodern cleverness, if you will,
raising questions as have been raised in The Human Stain
about who exactly is writing this account,
whether it’s Coleman or Nathan in that novel,
how it is that Nathan knows what Coleman thinks,
how he knows all that happened, all that he says he knows that
happened in Coleman’s life. Well, here at the very end
of the novel, when Foer brings out this
passage that has been provided much earlier in Jonathan’s
notebook, we are led to question the
authorship of all the letters in the book.
Now of course we know it’s a novel, we know it’s all written
by Jonathan Safran Foer, but in the logic of the novel
its self-awareness now verges towards this question.
It’s not just the reader who’s meant to question this,
but the novel asks us directly to question it.
So, what does it mean that Jonathan is revealed to be the
author of this letter? Well, there are a couple ways
of looking at it. There are those passages in the
Book of Antecedents–remember the Jewish book of memory that
the Trachimbroders write over time–some of those entries are
prophetic. They tell the future,
and we’re given an excerpt from that book that describes the
disaster, and so we know that something
like prescience is a quality of Jewish writing,
imagined in this way as a kind of religious practice.
So, either we can understand Jonathan as carrying on that
tradition, that what he writes in his diary is similarly
proleptic, it looks towards the future and
transcribes the future, or we can see it as
constructing the future itself. So, we can see it either as
imagining what will inevitably happen, or as making the future
out of those words. I think we’re meant to feel
both resonances to this formal trick, or this formal device,
but the resonance of control, of making it happen,
leads us to I think quite an interesting place,
and leads me to wonder whether this is not a novel of revenge.
To transpose the story of a survivor of the Holocaust who
later, much later in their life, finally comes to terms with
that terror and commits suicide, to transpose that well-worn
story, well-known story,
into the perpetrator’s life and family is a way of giving back
to the complicit the pain of the victims.
So, I think this is quite interesting.
Even though there are so many moments where that sense of
fault is mitigated: “would you not do the same?”
That question gets asked: Who would do differently?
How would you decide what to do? We’re given examples of Lista’s
father, who won’t spit on the Torah even though he is not a
religious man and watches as his entire family is killed and then
finally spits so that he can be killed too.
We’re given all kinds of morally ambiguous,
impossible situations, situations really where moral
machinery isn’t appropriate or possible to think through.
But still, there is that sense that a controlling author has
scripted this future for this particular family in the
present. So, that makes it quite
interesting to me, and I just want to look on 262
at another way that transposing the story outside of the Jewish
community radiates out in this novel,
and maybe mitigates that suggestion of a revenge plot,
and this is on 262 when suddenly the first-person plural
appears. I don’t know if you noticed it
when you were reading. I found it quite striking.
This is talking about the people of the shtetl in their
last months of life. “They waited to die.
And we cannot blame them, because we would do the same,
and we do do the same.” They ask that question
implicitly, “Would you do anything differently?
Would you go about your normal life?
What would you do?” And he says,
“We would do the same,” but he also says, “We do do the same,”
as if mortality, the fact of mortality,
the fact that we all are, all of us, waiting to die–and
in the meantime not thinking about that inevitable end,
going about our daily life with joy and play and all the range
of human experience and emotion–he says that that is
analogous to what these people were doing,
even though their end looked so different from the one that
Jonathan Safran Foer, the character in this novel,
expects to have for himself. So, the Holocaust story and
the reflection that it causes back on the activities of life
radiates out in a universalist sense.
It doesn’t just impose its narrative on a new set of
participants in the Holocaust, that of the perpetrators or
those who are complicit, but it radiates out to all
people past and present. So, it becomes a quality of the
human condition. This is a softening move I
think. It suggests the tragedy
involved in all sides of this story, the tragedy of the simple
man trying to save his wife and child and in doing so becoming
complicit to the murder of his friend. So we see that moral
complexity, and it feels like tragedy because of these
softening moves. Now, I want to stop there and
say that it’s in this innovation, this change to an
established narrative about genocide and its relation to
literature and writing, that I find this to be an
innovative novel, and if I were teaching a
course, which I used to teach
regularly, on genocide in literature, I would probably be
very happy to end with this novel.
For that line of analysis of this period,
it’s very appropriate as an innovative ending.
I think, though, in this novel,
it is partly there as a way of taking on something really hard.
So, I talked a little bit on Monday about the quality of
this novel as a campus novel, as the product of a young
person, and I was joking with you a little bit about the bar
being set high for the achievements one can pull off by
the age of twenty-two. I want to use that fact about
Foer–that this is a first novel, that it’s especially an
overtly ambitious novel–to reflect on something that’s
closer to life, and this is I think something
that I’ve earned because literature is about its address
to life. After all, that’s why we read
it, because it strikes us as a comment on things that are
important to us. If we read that’s one reason
why we read. So I want to use that question
of ambition, also, to address something that comes
up in the advising that I do here for students year in and
year out, and to get at that question I
want to read you something, as a good postmodernist,
from the nineteenth century. This is from Walden,
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
So we have read a lot of books together.
This little part I’m going to read to you from Walden
comes after Thoreau has talked about the pleasures and
the virtues of reading, and then this is in a section
called “Sounds.” The last section was called
“Reading.” This section is called “Sounds.”
I did not read books the first summer.
I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than
this. There were times when I could
not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to
any work, whether of the head or hands.
I love a broad margin to my life.
Sometimes in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed
bath, I sat on my sunny doorway from sunrise ’til noon wrapped
in a reverie amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs in
undisturbed solitude and stillness,
while the birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through the
house until the sun falling in at my west window or the noise
of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway I was reminded
of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like
corn in the night, and they were far better than
any work of the hands would have been.
They were not time subtracted from my life,
but so much over and above my usual allowance.
I hope that your summer will have a lot of time like that.
I hope that that time might also have latitude for reading,
and that reading will be not only what you have been now
trained to do, which is reading that is
informed–if it’s contemporary novels you’re reading–informed
about where these writers come from,
what kinds of projects they might be busy with,
what kinds of questions they might be responding to,
but also that it will give you time to enter into and pretend
with Nabokov–and remember back to the beginning of the
course–to pretend with Nabokov that you can climb a mountain of
the imagination and meet a reader there and forget all the
kinds of context that I’ve been teaching you to pay attention
to. Because it’s in that meeting in
the imagination that I think literature can most powerfully
speak to you. So, I hope you will go and have
that kind of summer.

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